Serebrennikov’s uncomfortably stimulating Vienna Parsifal has a searing logic

AustriaAustria Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Alexander Soddy (conductor). Vienna State Opera, 3.4.2024. (CR)

Günther Groissböck (Gurnemanz) and Michael Nagy (Amfortas) © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Director, Set designer and Costumes – Kirill Serebrennikov
Artistic collaboration – Evgeny Kulagin
Lighting – Franck Evin
Co-Designer – Olga Pavliuk
Co-Costume designer – Tatiana Dolmatovskaya
Video design – Aleksei Fokin and Yurii Karih
Fight Director – Ran Arthur Braun
Dramaturgy – Sergio Morabito
Chorus master – Thomas Lang

Amfortas – Michael Nagy
Gurnemanz – Günther Groissböck
Titurel – Wolfgang Bankl
Parsifal – Daniel Frank
Klingsor – Werner Van Mechelen
Kundry – Elīna Garanča
The former Parsifal – Nikolay Sidorenko
Knights of the Grail – Katleho Mokhoabane, Jusung Gabriel Park
Esquires – Stephanie Houtzeel, Alma Neuhaus, Norbert Ernst, Ted Black
Flowermaidens – Ileana Tonca, Miriam Kutrowatz, Anna Bondarenko, Maria Nazarova, Jenni Hietala and Stephanie Maitland

For Kirill Serebrennikov, in his thought-provoking and occasionally disturbing production of Wagner’s last music drama, the phenomenon that ‘here space becomes time’ (as Gurnemanz explains to Parsifal when escorting him with quickening steps to the Temple of the Grail in Act I) is the transmutation of experience through memory. (If that sounds rather cosily Proustian, the result is anything but a bittersweet, nostalgic evocation of times past.) The mature Parsifal looks back over the course of his life in the first two acts, bringing the narrative up to the present in Act III – the action largely played out by Nikolay Sidorenko’s indefatigable ‘former Parsifal’ as a silent extra on stage, but the sung part taken by Daniel Frank, usually removed from proceedings.

However, cultural memory of this particular opera recalls the association between its exclusive performance at Bayreuth Festival during the first three decades of its existence and the increasing attraction of racist and völkisch political views for some within that circle, and therefore the perceived taint upon the work’s theme of salvation and purity that arose from that nationalist chauvinism and anti-Semitism. As such, for Serebrennikov the ‘magic’ of the opera’s idea of redemption has failed, which leads him to set the work not an institution seeking spiritual enlightenment, but in a prison, specifically a sort of maison centrale as created by the French colonists in Vietnam for dangerous prisoners, often those from ethnic or religious minorities, implying the imposition of racist segregation.

It is hardly the first time that the Temple of the Grail has been reinterpreted as a potently dysfunctional institution, in ways with which the contemporary, secular world can identify better (rather than with more quaintly religious notions of sin and impurity, especially as construed through notions of sexual temptation). But here, the production effectively upends the opera’s vision of the Temple as the place within which salvation and regeneration may still be attained, by having that setting instead as the place from which they must be secured. In other words, the Grail and spear represent freedom – in an immediate sense, which is really perhaps nothing more than the prisoners’ yearning for release from physical incarceration as found in Fidelio.

At that level, the problem with the way this appears to be realised in Serebrennikov’s interpretation is that, during the years of Parsifal’s wanderings between Acts II and III, the prison has been decommissioned. And yet, the director’s re-telling of the synopsis oddly explains that ‘many former inmates still work and live within its walls’. It is not made clear why that should be and why they haven’t truly escaped, but it makes for a rather confused sense of dramatic logic – if nothing now compels them to remain in the prison, and physical freedom has already been achieved – at least nominally – what can Parsifal offer to those inmates when he returns? Why have they had to wait for him before they can physically leave it (as happens here at the end)? That isn’t answered. But the staging of Act I within the prison digs much deeper into the social and psychological dynamics at play among the inmates when they were formally imprisoned. In consequence this helps to suggest that the redemption which Parsifal brings works at a more personal, interior level; locating his return within the former prison at least makes it a dramatically convenient way of drawing together the threads of the whole opera and focusing that resolution among Parsifal’s former peers, with whom he had such a fractious relationship.

No ceremony or ritualistic fetishising is made of any meaningful object that Parsifal salvages from Klingsor. Another oddity arises in this respect, as no spear or anything else appears at the climactic moment of Act II when Klingsor is supposed to hurl it at him. Parsifal simply stands firm in his confrontation with Kundry as she points a gun at him, but she fatally turns it upon Klingsor instead, hinting that the spear is taken to represent some notion of mental steadfastness in the context of violence and conflict, particularly when bound up with romantic, sexual relationships (this moment comes after the complicating factor of Kundry’s kiss to Parsifal, and Kundry herself is, in some sense, under Klingsor’s domination after all). Although in Act III Parsifal brandishes a metal bar or rod, that seems to be done for the sake of outward conformity with Wagner’s directions, as no significance is made of it, again implying that salvation here is some sort of internal, personal process of healing, rather than an act of supernatural grace imposed from outside. The love feast (Liebesmahl) in Act I itself is presented not onstage but in a video projection while the prisoners sleep, as though a dream of the sort of co-operative social relationships the prisoners can only imagine, although even in that film sequence it ends in their customary violent anger. Intriguingly, the Grail itself is not something innate to the prison or the people within but is discovered among the incoming parcels which the guards check. The chalice is portentously raised, awakening the prisoners to hope in a life beyond the walls of their confinement, and another chimera.

The act of salvation – becoming free and mentally whole again – is made manifest in two ways here, which both run parallel with the original intentions of the work, if not literal realisations of it. First, within a social dimension, it is to break the cycle of violence, and restore dignity to the prisoners at large – who stand in for the fallen Grail community. Their anxious, almost neurotic hopes for release from prison, Gurnemanz’s corruptibility (he pays a guard for alcohol), as well as their systematic use of violence to survive, ironises the practices and protocols of Wagner’s original Temple brotherhood, which are all then superseded by the enlightenment Parsifal brings. That prevailing violence – physical and mental – is made graphic here, and not only among the anonymous inmates. Amfortas’s bloody wounds are inflicted by his own self-harming in response to the traumatised memory of his past, which also issues in the voice of his father, Titurel, in his head to repeat the rituals in prison the inmates have devised. Parsifal’s own act of violence on arrival at the camp is to murder a young albino prisoner called the ‘White Swan’, and video projections possibly imply that he may be prompted to that exaggerated act of fury by undesired sexual advances.

The latter suggestively links up with Parsifal’s aggravated sexual awakening in the drama through Kundry’s kiss and leads on to what Serebrennikov seems to intend as the second channel of salvation here. That operates at the level of individual, personal relationships. Serebrennikov refutes the notion of a chaste, sexless Parsifal by allowing the younger version of him to engage in a prolonged embrace with Kundry at the crucial moment in Act II, and again in Act III. Having been made an orphan at an early age, and then finding himself in prison and victimised by the other inmates – there is the occasional suggestion that he endures a Christ-like suffering at their hands – he is evidently a troubled youth, in search of a mutually loving relationship, free of exploitation, that he has not yet truly experienced. Kundry is a means to that, although she also becomes free in the same process. As a journalist, working for Klingsor’s magazine, she is the go-between in Act I in serving as a point of contact for the prisoners with the outside world; she brings in the tablets (drugs?) for Amfortas for instance. On Parsifal’s release from prison by the beginning of Act II, she is presumably the agent through which he is invited to come to Klingsor’s office for a photoshoot. If that is a better life than prison, he is still ostensibly enticed there by the Flowermaidens as ogling female stylists and paparazzi, and then exploited as an attractive model in various sexualised poses and clothing. As a worker for Klingsor and previously in a relationship with him, Kundry is not much less of a victim, and so her and Parsifal’s bid for emotional, psychological freedom become conjoined in the same mission, and hence their union; though Parsifal’s coming to terms with that is complicated by the memory of his mother (incarnated threefold here – again not clear why) and of Amfortas who also appears in Act II here.

Whether or not Serebrennikov’s interpretation aids or hinders engagement with the opera, there is an admirable clarity in the musical performance. Perhaps even paradoxically, despite the pain and anguish so visibly attested to onstage, Alexander Soddy draws from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra a lucid, hallowed sound. Act II rightly takes off with more impassioned drama, even if brought about by a more impulsive, urgent reading of the music than with particular force, though Act III is marked by moments of acute tension (even if its prelude strangely isn’t and floats quite ethereally). But rather than leaning into the aching suffering and yearning of the score on the one hand, or retreating into a sublime mysticism, this performance flows seamlessly and generally maintains a serene demeanour.

Daniel Frank (Parsifal) and Elīna Garanča (Kundry) © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

In taking up the singing part of the mature Parsifal, Daniel Frank suits the role with his vocal character of almost wearied resignation and reflection, precluding a sense of lithe, youthful ardour or searching, though a somewhat nasal quality seems to cause that inadvertently too. Elīna Garanča’s Kundry offers the outstanding performance, powerful and resolved already in Act I, but unleashing a more formidable musical personality in Act II without becoming strident. Her startling leap on ‘lachte’ alone conveys all the scornful rage that is often missing from other performances, while her calling out on ‘Parsifal’ has a strangely disembodied seductiveness. In that, she follows the Flowermaidens themselves whose musical advances to him are fairly clinical, not overlaid with lusciousness or exoticism.

Michael Nagy is an impressive Amfortas, his singing riven with the pain and desperation with which the character is seen on stage. Günther Groissböck maintains a deep, solid musical profile, aptly characterising Gurnemanz here as unbendingly, impersonally preoccupied with the prophecy about the holy fool coming to the rescue of the prison, but seemingly little concerned with the prisoners themselves. Klingsor is efficiently sung by Werner Van Mechelen, even somewhat detached, and therefore doesn’t register as especially sinister or evil. Wolfgang Bankl is a soft-tone Titurel, as necessary, existing only in Amfortas’s mind here.

Despite some oddities and complexities compounding the elusiveness of an already highly profound work of art, the thrust of Serebrennikov’s take on it carries its own searing logic. In dispensing with mystery and spirituality it won’t appeal to everybody, but its ideas are uncomfortably stimulating.

Curtis Rogers

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